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Lashon Hara: The Evil Tongue

Traditional Judaism teaches a doctrine against lashon hara (“La-shone Ha-rah”), or the “evil tongue.” As we will see, if this doctrine is applied in a spirit of love, it can be very good. However, if it is applied in some other spirit, it can be very destructive.

Lashon hara (לשון הרע) was originally intended as a decree against gossip. It is based on Leviticus 19:15 and 16 which tells us not to bear tales or take a stand against the life of our neighbor.

Vayiqra (Leviticus) 19:16
16 “You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people; nor shall you take a stand against the life of your neighbor: I am Yahweh.”

Additionally, the ninth commandment tells us not to bear false witness against our neighbors.

Shemote (Exodus) 20:16
16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

That it is listed as one of the Ten Commandments shows us how strongly Yahweh feels about false witnesses. However, the Jewish doctrine against lashon hara goes even further: It tells us that we should not even speak disparagingly against our neighbors. This idea is derived from how Miriam was punished for speaking disparagingly against Moshe (Moses).

Bemidbar (Numbers) 12:1-2
1 Then Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.
2 So they said, “Has Yahweh indeed spoken only through Moshe? Has He not spoken through us also?” And Yahweh heard it.

What Miriam said was essentially true: Yahweh had not only spoken through Moshe, but had also spoken through others in the congregation of Israel. However, since Miriam’s speech was not constructive, but disparaging and divisive, Yahweh considered it “evil.”

While both Miriam and Aharon were present, Miriam is mentioned first in the narrative. Since Miriam was the one punished, some scholars believe she was the one who initiated the slander. Whatever the case, Miriam’s punishment for speaking against the earthly leader of the nation of Israel was to be afflicted with tzaraas (“leprosy”) for seven days.

Bemidbar (Numbers) 12:10
10 And when the cloud departed from above the tabernacle, suddenly Miriam became leprous, as white as snow. Then Aharon turned toward Miriam, and there she was, a leper.

Whether in speech, writing, or other forms (such as electronic), Judaism teaches that any communication is almost always “evil” if it meets the following four criteria:

  1. It says something negative about a person or party
  2. It is something not previously known to the public
  3. It is not seriously intended to correct or improve a negative situation
  4. It is true

If all four of these criteria are met, the communication is almost certainly lashon hara. However, Judaism also teaches a fifth stipulation: that such communication may even be compulsory if one is aware of the possibility of future harm coming to another person. In those cases, one is ethically required to warn the other person, to keep him from coming to harm. As we will see, this is the key to understanding how the doctrine of lashon hara applies to the Renewed Covenant (“New” Testament).

Traditional Judaism considers lashon hara to be one of the most serious of all sins. Traditional Judaism also tells us not to confuse lashon hara with motzei shem ra (pure slander), which is speaking derisive things which are not true. As the rabbis reason, if speaking that which is true (but is negative, divisive, and/or derisive) is one of the worst of all sins, then how much more severe is the sin of fabricating a complete and total lie against another human being?

Some believing scholars question whether the doctrine of lashon hara is accurate, or whether it applies in a Renewed Covenant context. These scholars point out that if the four (or five) guidelines were applied in their strictest sense, then the apostle Shaul (Paul), Yeshua, and perhaps even Yahweh could be condemned for evil speech. However, while none of the apostles were perfect, we know that Yeshua and Yahweh are perfect, so let us look at these cases in more detail.

TimaTheus Bet (2 Timothy) 4:14-16
14 Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm. May Yahweh repay him according to his works.
15 You also must beware of him, for he has greatly resisted our words.
16 At my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me. May it not be charged against them.

In his writings, the apostle Shaul names names. Some commentators suggest that the only way Shaul could have spoken legitimately against Alexander would be if a beit din (court) had ruled against Alexander, in Shaul’s favor. These tell us that then (and only then) would Shaul be justified in speaking such a true statement that was negative towards Alexander.

While the context of this passage does seem to allow for the possibility that there was a court hearing, this is not proven. It also seems unreasonable that the only reason Shaul could be allowed to communicate the truth to Timothy was that a court had previously ruled in Shaul’s favor. Shaul’s purpose in writing Timothy was clearly to warn him (and those he shepherded) in order to keep them from coming to harm. This is clearly in keeping with the fifth stipulation, that the speaker is ethically required to pass along information he believes might save others from coming to harm.

The rabbis might consider this statement by Yeshua to be lashon hara.

Mattityahu (Matthew) 15:13-14
13 But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.
14 Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.”

According to the strict rules of interpretation, Yeshua’s remarks could be considered lashon hara because

  1. He says something negative about a person or party
  2. He is saying something not previously known to the public
  3. He is not directing His attempt to correct the rabbi’s behavior to them
  4. His statements are (by definition) true

However, the fifth stipulation also comes into play here. Yeshua is attempting to warn His disciples not to be like the scribes or the Pharisees, in order to keep them from future judgment (i.e., in order to keep them from harm). The reason Yeshua speaks in such a pungent manner may be in order to drive the point home in a way that will stick, therefore Yeshua’s remarks do not qualify as lashon hara.

Here is another statement by Yeshua that traditional Judaism would likely classify as lashon hara.

Yochanan (John) 8:44-47
44 You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.
45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me.
46 Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me?
47 He who is of Elohim hears Elohim’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of Elohim.”

Notice that

  1. Yeshua is saying something negative about a person or party
  2. He is saying something not previously known to the public (i.e., not common knowledge)
  3. His statements are (by definition) true
  4. He is directing His attempt to correct or improve the rabbi’s behavior to them

Rather than hold secret grudges, Judaism expects people to speak up for what is right. This national ethic of “clearing the air” may derive from Leviticus 19:17 and 18, which commands us to “surely” rebuke our neighbors, so that we bear no sin (i.e., hold no grudges) because of them.

Leviticus 19:17-18
17 ‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.
18 You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am Yahweh.
 (17) לֹא תִשְׂנָא אֶת אָחִיךָ בִּלְבָבֶךָ | הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא:
(18) לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ | אֲנִי יְהוָה

This passage is especially revealing for westerners, because the King James Version gives us a faulty rendering of this passage, and this legacy lives on in western thought and codes of ethics.

Leviticus 19:17-18 (KJV)
17 Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him.
18 Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am [Yahweh].

The rendering in the King James Version seems to suggest that we should never rebuke our neighbor, for that would “suffer sin upon him.” However, this reading is the opposite of what the Hebrew really says. In Hebrew the commandment is to “surely” rebuke our neighbor, based on the doubling of the root word yakach (הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ). Whenever a root word is doubled or repeated, it becomes an imperative.

The Hebrew of this passage is also interesting to analyze in the context of Hebrew block logic. Block logic tells us that when Yahweh places what seem like disparate thoughts together (as in Leviticus 19:17 and 18), these thoughts are related to each other, even if the connection is not easy for the casual reader to identify. When we apply block logic to Leviticus 19:17 and 18, it seems that Yahweh’s meaning is that in order to truly love our neighbor as we love ourselves, we must “surely” reprove our neighbors, so that they can learn and improve. If we do not reprove them, how can they learn what is wrong; and if they do not know that anything is wrong, how can they improve? Also, whether or not the other party hears us, once we have “gotten things off of our chest” and have “cleared the air,” we do not have to “bear sin.”

Block logic seems to imply that if we love someone, we will do what we can to help them improve; and this seems to be exactly what Yeshua was doing in John 8:44-47 (above). By “surely” reproving the Pharisees, Yeshua had witnessed to them; therefore He had done His part in giving them the option to change.

Yahweh speaks of the importance of this same kind of witnessing through His prophet Ezekiel. By speaking the truth in love, we deliver our own souls.

Yehezqel (Ezekiel) 3:17-19
17 “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the House of Israel; therefore hear a word from My mouth, and give them warning from Me:
18 When I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life, that same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand.
19 Yet, if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul.”

The key here, however, is to speak the truth in true and unfeigned love, rather than anger, condemnation, judgment, or whatever other emotion. While Yahweh asks us to stand up and speak out for what is right, we must always remember that the goal is not to criticize, castigate, or judge anyone. Rather, we must keep firmly in mind that the goal is for the body of Messiah to learn how to edify itself in love.

Ephesim (Ephesians) 4:11-16
11 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers,
12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the Body of Messiah,
13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of Elohim, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Messiah;
14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting,
15 but, speaking the truth in love , may grow up in all things into Him who is the head – Messiah-
16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.

Lest we underestimate the importance of helping the body learn how to edify itself in love, let us consider Yeshua’s instructions in Matthew 5:21-26, where He tells us that if we have done something to offend our brothers, or if we are unforgiving and are not reconciled with them, Yahweh does not accept our offerings.

Mattityahu (Matthew) 5:21-26
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’
22 But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca [I spit on you]!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.
23 Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you,
24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
25 Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.
26 Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last coin.”

Anger, hostility, or hot emotions in delivering a rebuke are the exact opposite of the gentle and peaceful self-controlled character that Yahweh wants us to develop. In order to please Yahweh, our rebukes need to take the form of lovingly helping a brother solve his problems.

Galatim (Galatians) 6:1-5
1 Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.
2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the Torah of Messiah.
3 For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
4 But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another.
5 For each one shall bear his own load.

If we sincerely love our brothers and hope to help them as we would like to be helped, our rebuke must be delivered in kindness and without wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the kind of brotherly affection that Yahweh Elohim desires.

Yaakov (James) 1:19-20
19 So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath;
20 for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of Elohim.

Can we imagine Yeshua speaking these words in love and pain, desperately trying to warn the brothers that they needed to change their ways, so that they would not face future judgment for believing in their own righteousness?

Mattityahu (Matthew) 23:13-14
13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.
14 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.”

When we are called to deliver a rebuke, generally one of the reasons we are called to deliver it is because we see the other party doing something wrong. In these times, how easy is it for us to feel superior in our flesh? How easy is it for us to feel self-righteous?

Luqa (Luke) 18:9-14
9 Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
10 “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘Elohim, I thank You that I am not like other men — extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.
12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’
13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘Elohim, be merciful to me a sinner !’
14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Shaul tells us that if we want the peace of Elohim to be with us, then without foolishness of any kind, we need to make a conscious effort to focus on the positive, rather than the negative.

Philippim (Philippians) 4:8-9
8 Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy — meditate on these things.
9 The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the Elohim of peace will be with you.

To focus on the good is to choose life; this will help us in every aspect of life, particularly when applied to our communications with others. Yaakov (Jacob) beautifully underscores the importance of speaking gently and peacefully, and focusing on speaking only good.

Yaakov (James) 3:1-13
1 My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.
2 For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.
3 Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body.
4 Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires.
5 Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles!
6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.
7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind.
8 But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With it we bless our Elohim and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of Elohim.
10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.
11 Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening?
12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.

Wisdom is evidenced by her meekness. Therefore, when a man’s speech or behavior is not meek, is he filled with the spirit of wisdom at that moment?

Lest we think that Yaakov’s call for meek, humble, and positive speech at all times is too much, let us consider Yeshua’s words.

Mattityahu (Matthew) 12:35-37
35 A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things.
36 But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.
37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

The things that come out of our mouths indicate what is in our hearts.

Yahweh shows us that in order to genuinely love our brother and help him improve, we need to put our emotions aside and speak to him in love, just as we would hope to be spoken to.

Mattityahu (Matthew) 7:12
12 Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Torah and the Prophets.

It is extremely difficult when the person we are speaking to does not hear our words. It can be a real patience builder to remember that only Yahweh can convict, particularly if the issue is a “hot” one for us, has caused either us or those we love to stumble in the past, or is actively hurting those we love. Once we have done our best job of delivering the message in love, we must let go of the outcome and place the results on Yahweh’s altar.

Romim (Romans) 14:4
4 Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for Elohim is able to make him stand.

Indeed, we must be extremely cautious when something “pushes our hot buttons,” for this indicates that we may have a similar or related flaw.

Romim (Romans) 2:1
1 Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.

Yeshua tells us that we are to judge with righteous judgment, so we know that it is possible for us to judge (if only another man’s fruits). However, when we find ourselves getting angry or emotionally upset, we need to stop and remember that we are no more than messengers for Yahweh. Our message must be delivered in all meekness and kindness, if it is to have the maximum effect; and we must be sure that we do not speak ill of our brother.

Yaakov (James) 4:11-12
11 Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the Torah and judges the Torah. But if you judge the Torah, you are not a doer of the Torah, but a judge.
12 There is one Torahgiver who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?

As the proverb of our fathers says, “A man convinced against his will is a man of the same opinion still, and a woman even more so.” One of the greatest of all sins is to think we are without sin; so if our brother does not hear our rebuke, rather than get into judgment, we need to get on our face and pray for our brother whom we love.

Consider the righteousness of David.

Tehillim (Psalms) 35:11-14
11 Fierce witnesses rise up. They ask me things that I do not know.
12 They reward me evil for good, to the sorrow of my soul.
13 But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled myself with fasting, and my prayer would return to my own heart.
14 I paced about as though he were my friend or brother. I bowed down heavily, as one who mourns for his mother.

David also modeled self-restraint, keeping his tongue from saying anything at all, so long as his emotions were still hot inside of him.

Tehillim (Psalms) 39:1-3
1 I said, “I will guard my ways, lest I sin with my tongue; I will restrain my mouth with a muzzle, while the wicked are before me.”
2 I was mute with silence, I held my peace even from good; and my sorrow was stirred up.
3 My heart was hot within me. While I was musing, the fire burned. Then [afterwards] I spoke with my tongue.

It can be a real challenge to hold our tongue while in the face of provocation. Yet Yahweh refines His people in the crucible, and asking us to hold our tongues is one of His means of doing so.

Consider also the righteousness of Abigail, who only spoke negatively about her husband Nabal in order to keep David from avenging himself (thereby saving Nabal’s life).

Shemuel Aleph (1 Samuel) 25:32-33
32 Then David said to Abigail: “Blessed is Yahweh Elohim of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me!
33 And blessed is your advice and blessed are you, because you have kept me this day from coming to bloodshed and from avenging myself with my own hand.”

One of the keys to holding one’s tongue is to know what our responsibilities are, and where they end, so that once we have witnessed to our brothers in love, we can pray, trusting that Yahweh controls all things within His universe. This makes it easier to remember that apart from loving and serving Him, our job is to love our brothers at all times.

Luqa (Luke) 6:27-38
27 “But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
28 bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you.
29 To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either.
30 Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back.
31 And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.
32 “But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.
33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.
34 And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back.
35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for He is kind to the unthankful and evil.
36 Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.
37 “Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
38 Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.”

Consider Yahweh’s unlimited power over the universe. Whatever measure we use when forming our opinions of others, this is the measure that Yahweh will use when He judges us. Thus, without being foolish, if we are merciful and charitable when forming our opinions of others, Yahweh will be merciful and charitable when forming His opinion of us.

Yaakov (James) 2:12-13
12 So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the Torah of liberty.
13 For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. (Yet) Mercy triumphs over judgment.

In what way does mercy triumph over judgment?

If we can spot the flaws in others, do we believe that we are completely without sin? Do we believe that our day to day actions are entirely righteous? Or are we willing to admit that perhaps we might have flaws we are blind to? And if so, then is it possible that others are blind to some of their flaws as well, and that it is only Yahweh who has the power to convict?

The doctrine of lashon hara gives us specific guidelines of how to behave. May we model it for our brothers, so that even in the heat of the moment we will work out our salvation in fear and trembling.

Mattityahu (Matthew) 5:48
48 Therefore be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.

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